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Defensible Space

Please read about the massive 1931 Comptche Fire and how people survived in the middle of a firestorm due to defensible space. It’s a good lesson on what saves lives.

In 1931 in late September the easterly and southeasterly portions of the Comptche settlement were swept by the worst fires in the history of the coast, the Mendocino Beacon newspaper reported. It was a quick and dirty fire that burnt in excess of 33,000 acres 79 years ago but a story that can help homeowners prepare for today.

Charlotte Layton, a Comptche homeowner on Hayslett Hill, had a lovely place on a ridge northeast of Comptche Corners. She was milking six cows to sell milk and cream, her barn was full of hay and feed for the winter, and her hog was getting fat. She had a ton of potatoes dug up and sacked and stored and 3009 quarts of canned fruit, vegetable, jellies and meat in her pantry. Life was good.

On the way down to the post office at Comptche Corners at noon people noticed smoke in the air. (Sound familiar?) It seemed to be coming from the direction of Big River and Nigger Nat Opening (now called Nathaniel Smith Opening) to the northeast. Driving to where they could see down into the drainage locals said it sounded like a steam locomotive engine roaring uphill headed towards Comptche. Everyone headed home to get ready.

Comptche fire cloud, 1931, photo by Charles Clar

A ranch hand drive her around to warn neighbors and turn out stock. She found her three children returning from school but discovered access back to the county road was cut off by flames. She stated “The wind was blowing a 80 mile gale…” in her account of the event.

With a world flickering in flames and fire moving in on their home 14 neighbors gathered at the Victor del Grosso home to make a stand. Why? It was in the middle on a wide grassy meadow with no timber nearby. It had defensible space around it. That term hadn’t been invented yet but that’s what they had. They parked a REO Touring Car, a Chevy, and a Whippet Sedan nearby and started wetting everything down as best they could. Men on the roof used wet cloth, curtains, and soaked quilts slapping them up and down to extinguish burning embers. All interior curtains were wet down and the children hidden in an inside room. They fought on, exhausted, while their world burnt down around them.

In town neighbors were frantic to know if the folks on the ridge survived. Men finally walked up through the fire-swept countryside in the dark of night certain no human beings could have lived through such fire, smoke and heat. They were overjoyed to find 14 survivors and while the del Grosso family stayed the rest of the folks hiked under fallen trees, over burnt culverts and along burned ridges to reach the valley floor where they were sheltered by neighbors in intact houses.

Jumping all over the place it was a capricious fire. It burned as far west as Melbourne (the current Tunzi Ranch) round the ridges on north of the Comptche Valley, and up the hills to the east. It sent fingers of flame down on to the valley floor, one coming within a half mile of our Tahja family ranch a mile east of Comptche Corners. It spread south, endangered the Keene Summit area, spread through the Flynn Hills and darn near made it to the Navarro River. All this, from Big River to the N Navarro River, in little over a day.

When she could reach it she found her cabin burned to the ground. Charlotte Layton lost everything. She found some livestock and her dog and cat survived in the orchard but she had to start over. The Red Cross actually came in, built her a simple home, and even gave her cows and feed for them.Red Cross also built cabins for other burned out settlers. It was an organization trained to help, even in the midst of the Great Depression.

Crews hired by lumber companies fought the fire. There was no volunteer fire department. Backfires were set to create barriers. No one wanted to see the fire jump Flynn Creek and get into timberlands then owned by Southern Pacific Railroad. Two million young trees about four years old planted for reforestation went up in flames. The fire didn’t spread further but flames remained in stumps and roots until the winter rains came.

How did that fire start? Mendocino Lumber Company was offering a $250 reward in 1932 for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the fire starter. No luck. But rumors went on for years. It did not start from logging activity as there was none in operation within five miles of the origin of the fire. The best guess was deer hunters. Trying to make better hunting grounds along Big River, they wanted the brush out of the way and started a brush fire. No one was ever blamed.

The del Grosso home was sitting in its wide open meadow. Think about defensible space around where you live. Keep it open around your home. Be fire safe. (And don’t stack your dry winter firewood on your front porch).

P.S. It was sad to see a dead bear in the road across from the Little Red Schoolhouse in the westbound lane Saturday morning. Remember wildlife may be coming down for what water there is in the Navarro River. Drive Carefully.

One Comment

  1. Pollyanna September 17, 2020

    It’s as refreshing as cool water, reading about courage and determination instead of loss, doom and loss. Maybe these times will turn out to be as hopeful as they seem to be hopeless.

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